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The Dorkiest Fun-Spoilingest Thing Ever Written About Breaking Bad

March 5, 2014 Leave a comment

This joke does the rounds a bit too often:
breaking_bad_cartoon

It doesn’t work.

In the show, because Walter White is a salaried professional, his insurance covers the same procedures that national healthcare insurance schemes generally cover in the sensible world.

The nature of the extremely expensive experimental cancer treatment for which he needs the money isn’t specified in the show – but quite often, such a treatment wouldn’t be deemed cost-effective for funding by the UK NHS, Australian Medicare, or the Canadian, French or German systems either. Like many experimental treatments, it also quite likely wouldn’t have had any effect – which is why insurers and national healthcare systems alike are reluctant to provide funding outside of clinical trial groups.

Now, if someone unemployed or casually employed (ie almost everyone from the subculture Walt visits after heading out on the meth-making trip) had gotten sick, that would have been a story where the outcomes were actually different in the US and the rest of the world…

Only sentimentalism could have saved the Australian car industry

February 12, 2014 Leave a comment

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the news that Toyota will follow its fellow foreign-owned carmakers GM Holden, Ford and Mitsubishi in ending car assembly in Australia. But at least from an economic point of view, there shouldn’t be.

The basic problem for the Australian car industry has nothing to do with unions or pay rates, despite the government’s outrageous lies to the contrary. It’s far simpler than that. Australia is a country of 23 million people, with a new car market of just under a million a year, while car manufacturing is an industry with massive economies of scale where the most efficient factories have annual production levels of more than half a million a year.

Less than half as many cars per worker…

Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK in Sunderland, which is famed for being one of the most productive plants worldwide, is about to increase production from 500,000 to more than 550,000. To knock out those half a million cars, NMMUK employs 6,000 people, and supports around 23,000 jobs in the UK supply chain. So that’s about 80 cars per worker (labour is not the whole story, but it’s a tolerable proxy, and accurate job data is easier to find than full input cost data at plant level).

Toyota Australia employs 2,500 people to produce 100,000 cars year, which is about 40 cars per worker. In the rest of the industry (as of now-ish, before Ford and Holden begin their shutdown), 1200. So carmaking in Australia employs 6600 people directly, for a total of 220,000 cars per year, or about 33 cars per worker (as you might have expected, Holden and Ford are less efficient than Toyota).

Scaling the supply chain in line with NMMUK employment (i.e. assuming Australian suppliers are as inefficient as Australian carmakers) would suggest that about 25,000 supply jobs will be lost when the Australian industry shuts down. Scaling it in line with Nissan output (i.e. assuming Australian suppliers are just as efficient as UK suppliers), you’d assume about 10,000 jobs will be lost.

…and 21,000 jobs, not hundreds of thousands

Data from IBISWorld suggests the actual number of jobs in the industry at risk is about 15,000, somewhere in the middle. So the total number of job losses when the car industry shuts down, including knock-on effects, will be about 21,000 [*]. This is roughly equivalent to the number of public servant jobs the federal government is currently cutting.

(the number of Australians in employment is 11.6 million, as of December 2013; the number of unemployed Australians is 716,000).

These 21,000 jobs are being lost because the Australian car market isn’t large enough to support an efficient domestic carmaking industry, even if every single car Australians bought were manufactured domestically. A large, remote, resource-rich and wealthy island of 23 million people has more productive uses of time and resources than subsidising industries that require greater scale than can possibly be achieved domestically, and where we’ve never excelled at exporting. Economically speaking, we would do better to buy new cars from South Korea, import second-hand cars from Japan, redirect the labour and capital involved towards things we are good at, and spend the subsidy money on things that we actually need.

But whence will come the V8 Supercars of the future?

Economics isn’t the whole story. It’s possible that having a carmaking industry is so important to Australia’s wider culture and self-image that it is worth protecting, whether by direct taxpayer subsidy or by higher import tariffs (which are a tax on everyone who buys a car, whether it is domestic or foreign-made). If Australia agrees as a society that this is the case, then continuing to subsidise carmaking is a completely legitimate decision – just as is the case for the large subsidies that go to farmers.

But if you think that the car industry has closed because wage rates are too high, you are wrong, and you believe the toxic bullshit the Liberals are seeking to peddle in order to erode everyone’s employment conditions. If you think that the decision to stop subsidising inefficient lossmaking industries will cost Australia money, you are wrong, and you believe the economically illiterate bullshit Labor is seeking to peddle in order to bash the Liberals. The only grounds on which to support a domestic car industry are sentimental grounds.

[*] Wider estimates of up to 200,000 job losses have been published in various ‘newspapers’. These are lies.

Content filtering is stupid, but you are stupider

December 23, 2013 6 comments

There’s been masses and masses of fuss over the last couple of days about the implementation of opt-out content filtering for porn in the UK.

As everyone sensible argued in great detail at the time the PM promised it following a Massive Stupid Media Panic, content filtering is pointless: it’s easy to bypass, provides a false sense of security, leads to false positives so that sex education sites get blocked, and puts the infrastructure in place for a more Daily Mail-friendly government to run wider censorship modes.

However, and unfortunately, most of the last couple of days’ Twitter chat about content filtering has involved gibbering idiots who know fuck all about fuck all talking embarrassing nonsense.

O2, one of the UK’s larger ISPs, has thoughtfully provided a tool so you can see how your website is categorised.

Here’s this website:
Untitled

Like all websites, it’s allowed on the opt-in “open access” feed (where you tick the “I am a dirty whoremonger” box). Like nearly all websites, it’s allowed on the default “default safety” feed (if you leave the “I am a dirty whoremonger” box unchecked). And, like nearly all websites, it is blocked under O2′s opt-in-only under-12 filtering scheme, whose aim is to create a walled garden of whitelisted CBeebies-ish tiny-friendly sites which won’t produce unfortunate results when your kitten-loving sproglet searches for “i love little pussy”.

Because people are monumentally stupid, and crowds even more so, the fact that almost all websites show up as blocked under the under-12 filtering scheme has led to claims that they are blocked under the default filters. Which they aren’t. Almost every tweet today about a website being blocked has been a fuckwit claiming that a website is blocked under the default filter, when it’s actually blocked only on the whitelisted kiddy-friendly filter.

This is not to say that the default filter isn’t problematic. It is problematic. Because it focuses on sex, it is inevitably going to fail hardest at the areas of sex where young people (especially LGBTQ young people) most need information and resources. But if you’re wanking on about how your blog or Wikipedia or the Guardian or basically anything non-sexual has been blocked, then you are a fucking idiot and you are not helping and you should shut up.

High Court did the best it could on same-sex marriage

December 12, 2013 Leave a comment

The fact that marriage isn’t yet equal in Australia is saddening, depressing and annoying. But, given John Howard’s 2004 anti-equal-marriage amendment to federal marriage law and the fact that the Constitution explicitly reserves marriage to the federal government, the High Court made the right decision.

For the Australian Capital Territory’s Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act to have been legal, the court would have had to have agreed with the wording of that act that same-sex marriage didn’t count as “marriage” for the purposes of the Constitution, and therefore didn’t fall within the Constitution’s designation of marriage as a matter reserved for the federal government.

That would have meant that marriage was recognised inherently as something that could only be between a man and a woman, rather than solely because of the wording of the 2004 law. From a symbolic point of view, this would have been terrible. And given that same-sex couples already have de facto status, which in Australia confers the same rights and obligations as marriage for most practical purposes(*), the purpose of the ACT legislation was solely symbolic.

But the High Court ruling is not just symbolism.

The legal position following today’s ruling, is that

  • all marriages in Australia are real marriages, irrespective of the participants’ recorded gender;
  • it’s only the 2004 federal law that prevents marriage equality; and
  • its repeal will put same-sex (and trans*) marriages in exactly the same position as opposite-sex marriage.

Had the court ruled the other way, it would have found that same-sex marriages didn’t count as real marriages at the level of the constitution, which would have been far harder to fix.

When will the 2004 law get repealed? Well, it was a Conservative government that introduced equal marriage in the UK. Even fusty Tory bigots can’t fight the tide of history forever…

(*) there are some differences between marriage and de facto status, mostly related to property division and alimony. However, an ACT ‘Same-Sex Marriage’, being explicitly not considered as marriage under federal law, would not have changed these, certainly outside the jurisdiction of ACT courts and quite possibly even within it.

Did globalisation kill satire? And is that for the best?

November 15, 2013 3 comments

How should we judge someone’s words? By intent, by effect, or what? How much does unintended offence matter? Also, LILY ALLEN and TWERKING and EATING IRISH BABIES.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

The quote above, of course, is from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, viscerally parodying the callousness of the British regime in 18th century Ireland in letting children starve, and the harrumphing letters to the newspaper that privileged scumbags would write about feckless over-reproducing “professed beggars”.

It’s an incisive pisstake of a very shitty trope, which is vile to the poorest in society, is reproduced by the middle- and upper-classes – and a trope which is being exposed and mocked here by one of the most privileged men in the country. As a result, it’s a textbook example of Satire Done Right but also Satire Done By Someone Privileged.

Scumbag Londoner Wants Our Babies Eaten

Now imagine a version of 18th century Ireland where, as they starved, Catholic peasants were somehow able to read those words as written [*]. As you prefer, this could be based on the knowledge that Swift was writing a parody targeting the British upper- and middle-classes, or it could be completely devoid of context as if this were a book by a wicked Englishman.

In either case, it’d be hard for someone to read those words, on how your children were to be singled out and taken and raised for food, without feeling at best uncomfortable. If you knew it was written as a satire, then perhaps it’d be forgiveable and you’d understand the points being made, but at the same time it’d be hard to disentangle from the sickening way in which people were talking about eating your children. If you didn’t know it was written as a satire, you’d be understandably tempted to find the person who wants your kids raised as an alternative to turkey at Christmas and kick the bastard to death.

Internetglobalisationtwitterbollocks means that we now live in a world where, assuming the piece that you write reaches more than a niche audience of you and your mates/regular readers, it will be viewed devoid of context. There’s a good chance it’ll reach someone who is in the group whose side you’re on, but whose side you’re pretending to eviscerate for the sake of the piece – so the example of the Irish peasant given a copy of Swift is no longer outlandish.

(By The Way, He Directed Major Lazer And Nobody Cared)

Given that the whole point of satire is to upset and confront the powerful, how does that affect the appropriate way to behave in the current environment? I’m really not sure on this. The controversy raging over Lily Allen’s latest video (the best bit is the rejoinder to the horrible Robin Thicke, in which new mum Allen gloriously spells out “Lily Allen Has A Baggy Pussy” in balloons) is a good example.

It’s aimed at savaging the music industry, as highlighted by the white male exec who tells everyone what to do, and most of the content. Allen is pressured into being toned-teenage-model-bodied despite just having had two kids, in front of a mob of dancing rent-a-girls in what have become standard R&B video clichéd moves and poses. If you’re a middle-class white female British artist and a middle-class white male British director, and you both have a fair amount of experience of how terrible MTV is, this is something that might seem like a reasonable, not-especially-clever, not-especially-controversial satire on the world in which you operate.

On the other hand, the video features twerking dancers who are mostly black (four out of six, because he hired the best twerking troupe and there were four of them of whom six are black, says the director), and a couple of lines where Allen disparages rap culture materialist aspirations. Add to that the fact that the USA still dominates online discourse, and is still a society featuring a terrifying racial divide and preponderance of full-on black-hating neo-slaving lunatics even on the allegedly left-leaning side, and you have a recipe for trouble.

Which duly occurs. Both of these are excellent well-written pieces, both worth reading. Both, crucially, come from priors that are very different than any priors that white-Brit-liberal types involved in either making or watching the video would be likely to have. From an African-American perspective, the video co-opts African-American culture, ridicules it, and positions Allen as better than it. Which is quite different from just being someone who escapes the creepy white male exec and his creepy demands.

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa; WHAT NEXT?

Anyway. Today on Twitter, I defended the video (which was a stretch, because I was pretty disappointed by the song), and I went way too far and ignored far too much of the above in doing so.

It’s easy, if the intention seems so obvious when you share the priors of the makers, to dismiss other people as ridiculous for not understanding – like the hypothetical Irish folk who read Swift’s book and believe that he’s even more evil than the average Englishman. In some cases, it’s warranted (various Stupid Onion Comments blogs testify); in others, the cultural context is far less clear, so it isn’t. There are many right-wing places, again particularly in the USA, that publish utterly despicable content; there are some sub-Onion satire blogs that publish pieces which appear more aimed at trolling for its own sake than humour; and Poe’s Law is a thing.

But it’s even easier, when someone else does understand but is still offended by the fact that they are being used instrumentally in that way, to assume they fall into the first category. Which I know I’ve done tonight, and which I regret.

This is the point that I’ve come to realise, and I’m not sure I’d thought about it properly before. When considering the second Swift In A Time Machine (hot tub not included) case, with a well-fed, Irish-born member of the English gentry trying to explain to the starving masses “no, look, the baby-eating thing was a joke to annoy the English. No, really, I’m on your side, that was the point” – I’m not sure that would cut it, even if they believed him. And I’m not sure they’d be all that unreasonable to take it in such a way.

So is there something inherently wrong with Swiftean satire and we were wrong to like it all along? Can that kind of ambiguity only be deployed by people in oppressed groups rather than by privileged people who dislike oppression? Is there something contingently wrong, which means it can only be deployed in a world that’s less connected than the world where we actually live? Or is it just that Lily Allen and Chris Sweeney are insufficiently good at it to be viewed as competent satirists, and actually our man Jonathan Swift would have done just fine?

I’m not sure. If it’s the final one, then I suspect that means everyone who isn’t Chris Morris or Jon Stewart probably needs to be a lot more careful about what they say satirically. And maybe that’s not a bad take-out.

[*] To be clear, I know Swift was a popular author among English-speaking literate Irishpeople, being one himself. Since Johnny questioned it, I should make clear that we’re using a hypothetical device that makes English-language works accessible to people who can neither read at all nor speak English.

Locals are from Earth; migrants are from Venus, Mars, Alpha Centauri, wherever

October 27, 2013 1 comment

THINGS MIGRANTS SAY IN POLITE CONVERSATION (WHICH ARE TRUE):

“Hello, new friend-of-friend. [if person notes ethnicity in conversation] Yes, I do like it here, thank you. Yes, I’m intending to stay here. Yup, the weather is great and the people are friendly. No, haha, fair, I’m probably still gonna support my home country team against yours in the one massively hyped sporting contest that everyone talks about, but I do already support yours when they’re playing anyone else.”

[followed by: normal conversation, which may include philosophy, Cold Chisel, NRL, house prices, or the million life-in-general things that conversation features. Recommended.]

THINGS MIGRANTS DON’T SAY IN POLITE CONVERSATION WITH NON-MIGRANTS (EVEN THOUGH THEY’RE ALSO TRUE):

“Hello, person who was born here and waves a flag on special occasions. I like-love this place so much that actually, my quest to be allowed to stay here is the single most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, and I’ve bothered to do it. A quarter of a year in working days of my time, if not more, has been spent on staying-here bureaucracy and I’m hoping and praying (despite being entirely secular, can’t do any harm, right?) that the form-filling ceremony in a year or so will go hitchless and I’ll no longer have to worry about the risk of being driven out of my home and the place I already view as my homeland with a couple of weeks’ notice. And I’m still listening, and learning, and trying to understand, and always listen to make sure I’m trying to do this place right - and sometimes fuck it up, and am aware of it.

I’m lucky, I’m white and skilled and rich-country-born and English-speaking. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t have been let in in the first place (since I arrived on a visa only available to citizens of wealthy countries), and all of the steps that I’ve taken to become established as a member of this society would have been far harder. And I had money – while I don’t count my MA as part of the visa side of things, even excluding that, I’ve spent over ten thousand dollars on things that have solely been to ensure my visa, and have another outlay of a few thousand to come.

If I were poor (even if a citizen of a wealthy country) or a citizen or a poor country (even if wealthy), there’s absolutely sod-all chance I could have done what I’ve done here. When politicians talk about how people like me, or about how people who aren’t that different from me, who have a different foreign passport or a few fewer dollars, shouldn’t be here, I’m hurt by this discussion. The difference between the person being hated and me is solely down how how the speaker appraises their imaginary victim’s cultural and economic value, and a different speaker could view mine as equally worthless.”

[followed by: general communal downer, self-identification as lairy outsider. Not recommended]

REASONS WHY PEOPLE WHO AREN’T BIGOTS AND HAVE MIGRANT FRIENDS ARE ABLE TO MAINTAIN UNHELPFUL BELIEFS:

“I’m friends with John and Prashant and Pierre, and they’re good people and they’re all here and they’ve never complained about how hard it is to get in or to be accepted, we just have a bit of banter about cricket and then talk about philosophy, NRL or house prices. Not like those whingers who come over here easy as pie and claim the dole and get free houses.”

[well, yes.]

The importance of framing

October 10, 2013 1 comment

In the lead-up to the 2010 UK general election, many civil libertarians of my acquaintance (not solely Screaming Loony Privatise The Army Libertarians, but people of all economic stripes who believe that broadly, trials are a good thing and torture is a bad thing) were suggesting that for all a putative Tory government’s likely failings, at least it would be better than Labour at upholding civil liberties.

Backbench hanger-and-flogger David Davis’s ridiculous stunt over ID cards was the declaration of intent that this particular mob saw, although one might have thought that the ongoing chorus of ‘Abolish The Human Rights Act’ from the Tory backbenches was a more accurate signal of things to come.

Which brings us to today. In one day, the Tories have pledged to impose de facto ID cards by requiring certified ID for almost all aspects of daily life, and impose draconian restrictions on people who’ve never been convicted of a crime on the say-so of the police.

Even civil libertarians surely can’t have expected the Tories to be better on abortion than Labour (which, curiously, didn’t seem to matter quite so much to this largely male grouping when making decisions before the election. Mysterious). Even so, the sight of government ministers denouncing the Director of Public Prosecutions for upholding the existing law on abortion and allowing a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy, whilst floating a change in the law that would restrict this right, is even worse than might reasonably have been expected.

In terms of policy, much of this reflects the fact that the party in government is always the party permanently having its ears bent by authoritarian bureaucrats and cops. But it also reflects the fact that the Tories aren’t and never were the free-trade, classical-liberal party that Labour-hating libertarians imagine them to be (that was the Whigs; Tories were always authoritarian reactionaries). Basically, civil liberties fans who cheered the Tories, you were stupid last time; don’t be so stupid next time.

The really impressive thing, though, is the framing, which goes even beyond Mr Blair’s skills. For a government that frequently seems to teeter on the edge of losing control, the way in which all three of these horrific policies have been phrased is sheer PR gold. Compulsory ID For All has been expressed as “OMG stop illegal migrants from taking your jobs!!!”; Minority Report has been expressed as “OMG stop Jimmy Savile and save the childrens!!!”; and Bollocks To Abortion Rights has been expressed as “OMG something something China!!!”. Superbly designed to pull at the heartstrings of the average total fucking idiot. Hopefully, still not quite enough to avoid losing the next election…

Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail has glittering coverage of all three.

To the Daily Mail, Genghis Khan was a fellow-traveller

October 3, 2013 Leave a comment

The simple fact of the matter is that capitalist democracy, for all its crippling limitations, has been immeasurably less oppressive and a lot more democratic than any communist regime, whatever the latter’s achievements in economic, social and other fields.

- notorious communist Ralph Miliband.

Hat tip to @durrant_james on the Twitters.

Bands of distinctions

July 15, 2013 2 comments

I an a civilised gentleman with a fine reputation; my father has a reputation as a smart bastard who stirs up shit. He also introduced me to the delightful and amazing Kirstie MacColl and by proxy, Johnny Marr.

I feel the need to stick up my dad’s Trayvon commentary, because it needs a home.

This train wreck of a trial is a bit like a Korean airliner crash. It takes a series of errors to get there, but given the people involved, they surely will. A bad law puts the jury in the position of deciding what was going on in Zimmerman’s wretched brain. The jury selection process results in a jury of ladies who might find an encounter with a black hoodie frightening. And then they are told that if they have reasonable doubt about what was going on in Zimmerman’s mind, they can acquit him. The verdict is not a surprise, but it underlines the shabby nature of American law- making and enforcement for the 216 years since a revolution based on a twin commitment to slave ownership and tax dodging, masquerading as a freedom struggle.

Quick and unoriginal Eurovision thought

May 18, 2013 1 comment

Eurovision is massive in Australia, probably more so than it is in much of Europe – despite the fact that there aren’t any Australian participants, we don’t get to vote, and it’s shown on time-delay. Which is odd.

Of course, its importance is symbolic. Eurovision was first shown in Australia in 1983, which was exactly the point when the first generation of Australian-born people of non-British descent (*) was in the ascendant (since from 1946-1973, migration policy had moved from ‘The Empire’ to ‘any country you like as long as you’re white-ish’).

Australia was shedding old stereotypes about national background, stiff-upper-lips and machismo, and forging its own identity with a nod to all the cultures from which the population was now derived. Combining row-of-tents campness with a near-total match to white Australians’ homelands, Eurovision couldn’t have worked better as a totem of the New Australia.

The White-ish Australia policy has now been dead for almost exactly as long as the British Australia policy had been in 1983, and again, the country has changed substantially and for the better for it. Sure, there are still plenty of bigots, but Asian cultures are now a massive part of the Australian mainstream.

It occurs to me that what we really need now, to cement and mark this, is some kind of massively campy event that somehow nods to both Australia’s multiple European heritages and the Asian heritage of New New Australians… Any ideas?

* yes, I know there have been Chinese and German Australians for almost as long as there’ve been white Australians and for much longer than there’s been a country of Australia. But mass migration was overwhelmingly from the British Isles until after World War II.